On This Day: Captain Cook

24 August 2018

During the 1750’s and 60’s the colonisation of the New World by the British, Dutch, Spanish and French happened apace. Britain became a world power with an extensive empire. There was great competition to claim lands and establish new trade routes. Voyages by the British Navy discovered new land, encountered new civilisations and mapped unknown waters.

On 26 August 1768 Captain James Cook made the first of three voyages to the Pacific Ocean. He was the first European to land on the East coast of Australia. He made the first circumnavigation of New Zealand, discovered the Hawaiian Islands and searched Alaskan waters for the North West passage, a proposed shorter trade route from the West to the Far East. During his third voyage, Cook died in an altercation with Hawaiian natives. In 1784, the British Admiralty published an account of the voyages led by Cook.

His first voyage to the pacific on the HMS Endeavour, in 1768, was for scientific research at the request of the Admiralty and the Royal Society. Cook and the astronomer Charles Green were to record, in the South Seas, the transit of Venus across the Sun. The expedition was supported by public funding granted by George III, himself a keen astronomer.

Having recorded the transit, Cook opened sealed orders from the Admiralty to search for the land of Terra Australis Incognito, a fabled continent thought to exist to the far South of the world, now known as Antarctica. Cook was one of the first to cross the Antarctic Circle on 17 Jan 1773. So close to Antarctica, he encountered icebergs and rough seas and changed course to Tahiti, Easter Island, the Norfolk Island and the friendly islands (named on account of the amiable natives). He took possession of South Georgia for the King of England.

During his three voyages Cook and his crew were the first to land on the East Coast of Australia and map the coast of New Zealand, proving the two lands were separate islands.  Cook took formal possession of New Zealand and the East Coast of Australia which he called New Wales. His voyages extended to the Alaskan coast, as he searched for a shorter trade passage from the West to the Far East. He did not find a route but mapped most of the Alaskan coast and in 1778 was the first European to make contact with the Hawaiian Islands.

As instructed, he took formal possession of the islands and many others in the name of his Britannica Majesty, complying with secret instructions he opened after the voyages had set sail.

‘You are also, with the consent of the natives, to take possession, in the name of the King of Great Britain, of convenient situations in such countries as you may discover, that have not already been discovered or visited by any  other European power; and to distribute among the inhabitants such things as will remain as traces and testimonies of your having been there; but if you find the countries so discovered are not inhabited, you are to take possession of them for his majesty, by setting up proper marks and inscriptions, as first discoveries and possessions…’

Secret instructions from the Office of the high Admiral 6th July 1776

Accounts of the voyages describe in detail the interactions with natives of the islands visited, their homes, clothing, weapons, sculpture and food. Cook and his crew traded with the natives and attempted to understand and record their languages. These were dramatically different to Western culture and the account also describes the scenes of human sacrifices witnessed on the Pacific islands.

Landing in these new worlds enabled scientific research and plant collection. Also travelling on the first voyage were the privately-funded botanist Joseph Banks and naturalist Daniel Solander. Artists also accompanied the voyage, recording the landscapes and peoples of lands extending from New Zealand, through the Pacific Islands to the Alaskan coast, then part of Russia. The published account includes a volume of engravings which were produced back in England from the artists’ drawings and watercolour paintings.

The voyages contributed to astronomy, gained great new lands for the empire, produced accurate navigational charts and collected specimens for the study of natural history.

The account was published by the Admiralty, based the journals of Cook and Captains King and Clerke, who commanded the voyage after Cook’s death during an altercation with natives of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaiian Islands).

At the time of the first voyage, the 3rd Earl of Bute was 56 years old and beginning a three year tour of Italy (1769 – 1771). When the book was published in 1784, Bute was 71 years old and retired. He spent much time at Highcliffe House, his retreat in Dorset but retained his interests in botany and science, collecting books and instruments. The account of Cook’s voyages was probably part of the ‘voyages and travel’ section of his library collection and the volumes are bound in his armorial binding.